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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I would expect that where guidance is drafted and considered, there would be such consultation. I know that the gypsy organisations, in particular, have a well respected history and tradition of providing their views volubly on matters pertaining to guidance.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baronesses, Lady Turner and Lady Whitaker, and to the right reverend Prelate, for their support for the amendment, which we tabled to expose the fact that the Government's policy is the wrong way round. They are providing the initial powers under Clause 67 while not taking the first step towards providing the sites—which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, said, local authorities do not at present take seriously. Of course they do not, because there is no statutory obligation and no money. In the old days, under the 1968 Act, there were both: they had to provide sites for gypsies residing in or resorting to their area; and they received a 100 per cent grant.

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If the Minister imagines that something that falls desperately short of that scheme will do the trick, he is very much mistaken. We certainly look forward to the announcement that he foreshadowed next spring of what is the Government's policy on the Niner report. I wonder why they cannot at least say that they accept her principal recommendation, which is that the Government should have a clear, widely understood national policy towards the accommodation of travellers. We do not have that; and we have never had it. The opportunity was lost at the time of Sir John Cripps's report, in which he recommended that all the local authorities should get together with the Government and have an agreed scheme for the provision of a certain number of sites within an agreed timetable.

The right reverend Prelate said that homelessness of travellers is a serious matter—we know that from the ODPM's own figures. Under the Housing Act 1996, everybody on an unauthorised site is ipso facto statutorily homeless, and there are 3,000 such caravans. How can Parliament continue to provide additional enforcement powers while we know perfectly well that 3,000 families live homeless in those conditions? As the Minister rightly says, those conditions cause difficulties in the settled areas where the caravans are located.

I am very sorry that the noble Lord has insisted, yet again, on doing things the wrong way around—giving local authorities additional enforcement powers while doing nothing whatsoever to solve the problem of accommodation shortages. However, we have no alternative but to wait until next spring to find out the Government's policy. I hope that they will consult not only on the guidance on the enforcement powers in the Bill, but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, said, on the formulation of their strategy. If they produce a policy next spring that does not match the needs perceived by the travelling community and the many organisations that support it—including the CRE, which is far more active than ever before—another opportunity will have been missed.

I hope that the noble Lord will take the message from this debate to consult widely on the formulation of the strategy, which will appear next April, and that that strategy will include comprehensive knowledge of the needs of gypsies from themselves. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we now move to a very special part of proceedings, when I can thank all noble Lords for the energy and vigour with which they have scrutinised the Bill. I thank all Front-Benchers for participating in making this Bill something that we can all think gives us credit. I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)

Lord Dixon-Smith: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her kindness and consideration throughout the Bill. She has dealt with us all with immense care. In doing so, she has revealed the care

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and trouble that she intends should be taken for those who suffer from those problems, or who must deal with them, in the community. The Bill is better for our consideration. We are very grateful to her for her care of us and of the subject.

On Question, Bill passed, and returned to the Commons with amendments.

Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2003

8.11 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th September be approved [27th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to move that the House approve the draft Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 (Modification) (No. 2) Order 2003, which will reclassify cannabis to a class C drug on 29th January 2004.

I note the concern that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has expressed in his amendment about the levels of use of cannabis and the risks to the health of young people. I will come to those very important issues shortly, but I first wish to set the proposed reclassification of cannabis in its proper context.

The misery that can be caused by the use of illegal drugs, particularly class A drugs, cannot be underestimated. Their use affects the well-being of individuals and families, as well as striking at the very fabric of communities, feeding a cycle of crime, violence and decay. The Government's drug strategy must deliver real change on the ground in relation to the most dangerous drugs and the most damaged communities. Key elements of the strategy are educating young people about the dangers of drugs, preventing drug misuse, combating the dealers and treating addicts.

Our programme of interventions brings those arrested into treatment, so breaking the cycle of committing crime to fuel a drug habit. The Government are increasing their direct annual expenditure on tackling drugs from just over 1 billion this financial year to nearly 1.5 billion from April 2005—an increase of some 44 per cent.

Young people are our highest priority. We have launched the Frank campaign, using carefully researched advertising designed to make a real difference to young people's attitudes to illegal drugs—drugs can ruin lives very quickly. Education policies are now in force in 96 per cent of all secondary schools. We must recognise that there are no quick or easy fixes to the scourge of drugs. However, we are taking action based on evidence of what works, and, to be effective, we need to be honest in our approach and listen carefully to the scientific advice that we get, and not be led by prejudice or emotion.

It was those underlying themes that led the Home Secretary to announce to the Home Affairs Select Committee in October 2001 that he was asking the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to consider

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the classification of cannabis under the Misuse of Drugs Act. Cannabis use has increased steadily over the past 30 years, in spite of cannabis being a class B drug. The treatment of all drugs as equally harmful has lacked credibility with young people, and individual police forces have put in place their own disparate policies on the policing of cannabis possession, leading to inconsistency and a lack of proper political accountability.

The Government's proposal to reclassify cannabis to class C, in line with the recommendation of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, will enable us to correct these anomalies. But let me make it absolutely clear that we are not legalising cannabis. Our message is that cannabis is harmful and it will remain an illegal drug. However, in terms of its harmfulness, the advisory council is clear in its view that cannabis is not comparable either with class A drugs, such as crack cocaine or heroin, or with other substances, such as amphetamines, which are currently in class B. Our drugs laws and our education messages to young people must reflect that scientific assessment if they are to be effective and credible. So the reclassification of cannabis will help the Government to convey a more effective and credible message, especially to young people, about the dangers of misusing drugs.

We will start an education campaign in early January to get the simple message across to young people that cannabis remains illegal and is harmful, by making a leaflet widely available to young people and through extensive radio advertising. To answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, directly: the Government do not accept that a high level of use of cannabis is inevitable. We will try to make an impact on that level through effective advertising, and begin to turn young people away from becoming regular cannabis users.

Secondly, reclassification will provide an opportunity for putting in place a consistent and properly thought out regime for policing cannabis, in line with its status as a class C drug. We have included proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill to retain the power of arrest for the possession of cannabis. Under the published police guidance, which applies to all persons 18 years of age and over, there will be a presumption against arresting a person who is found in possession of cannabis. But a police officer may arrest in the following four circumstances: when a person is smoking in public view; when a person is known locally to have been dealt with repeatedly for possession of cannabis; when there is a locally identified policing problem; or when the person in possession is in the vicinity of a school or other premises used by young people.

Young people under the age of 18 will be dealt with under the statutory warning scheme set out in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. In most cases, they will receive a formal reprimand for a first instance of cannabis possession. This will be administered in the police station, so that the police can properly investigate whether there are any underlying issues

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around the person's drug use which need be to investigated and possibly referred for appropriate help. This overall regime for policing cannabis possession will ensure that action is properly taken by the police against someone who is causing a problem or needs help, while avoiding needlessly criminalising large numbers of young people.

Reclassification will also enable the police to redeploy their resources into tackling more serious offences, including dealing in class A drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine, which do the most harm to users, their families and communities, as well as enhancing our work to get people into treatment.

Perhaps I may say something about dealers. The Government take dealing in any illegal drug very seriously. We have therefore brought forward proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill to increase the maximum penalty for dealing in a class C drug from five to 14 years imprisonment. That will mean that, following reclassification, the penalty for dealing in cannabis will remain at its current level. The courts will continue to be able to impose tough sentences on serious dealers.

In this House, there are many different views about the correct response to cannabis. I know that some noble Lords advocate complete legalisation, arguing that that would cut the link between young users and criminal dealers. The Government respect that view, but believe that it would inevitably lead to a massive increase in the use of cannabis and the health problems that would result. Cannabis is harmful. In our view, it would be highly irresponsible for any Government to gamble in that way with young people's health.

Other noble Lords believe that cannabis should remain a class B drug, arguing a number of health concerns with which I shall deal in some detail. The issue of whether cannabis is a gateway drug to class A drugs has been debated for many years. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs looked at this issue when it considered the classification of cannabis and concluded that no causal link had been established since there were many other factors which might act as gateways. Obvious examples are alcohol, tobacco, solvents and stimulants. The fact is that the great majority of cannabis users never move on, thankfully, mercifully, to class A drugs.

Suggestions have been made that cannabis smoked today is up to 20 times as strong as that smoked 30 years ago. The data that the Forensic Science Service analysed on cannabis seizures do not support that contention. It is correct that some of the new indoor-grown strains of cannabis now on the market are stronger than that which was smoked 30 years ago, but by a factor of two or three times stronger, and not 20 times, as many have suggested. On the other hand, much imported herbal cannabis and cannabis resin is little different from that used 30 years ago.

I turn now to the possible link between cannabis use and the development of mental illness and, in particular, schizophrenia. It is true that some research material was published in the British Medical Journal as recently as last November. I know that some noble

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Lords have taken a keen interest in that issue. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs considered it in depth during its deliberations, but it concluded that no clear causal link had been demonstrated. On the other hand, the council was clear that cannabis use, unquestionably, could worsen an existing condition of schizophrenia. The council will continue to monitor any developments in research.

As regards the possible link between cannabis use and the development of lung diseases, clearly the smoking of any substance is potentially dangerous. However, those who seek to draw inferences from the number of premature deaths caused by tobacco smoking need to be very cautious. While the smoking of cannabis is undoubtedly harmful, cannabis users generally smoke fewer cigarettes per day than do tobacco smokers, and most give up in their thirties, so limiting the long-term exposure that we know is the critical factor in cigarette-induced lung cancer.

No approach to the drugs problem is without risk, but we believe that the strategy I have outlined provides the best possible opportunity to bring credibility to our drugs education, in particular to sharpen up our education messages to young people on cannabis and to get the priorities of law enforcement and treatment directed at class A drugs. This strategy has widespread support, not only from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, but also from the police and all the major organisations working with drug misusers.

It is proposed that the draft order will be brought into force on 29th January 2004 to coincide with the date when the related provisions contained in the Criminal Justice Bill, which I have mentioned, would also be brought into effect if they are approved by this House. That is why the Government are proposing the draft order now rather than waiting until the Criminal Justice Bill has been approved by this House. I commend the changes proposed in this order.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th September be approved [27th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Scotland of Asthal.)

8.26 p.m.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion, to insert "but this House notes that the order may lead to increased use of cannabis with risks to the health of young people and regrets that the order is being made before the Government's proposals concerning class C drugs have been finalised".

The noble Lord said: My Lords, as ever, I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for her characteristically thorough explanation of the Government's proposals. However, even her professionalism cannot disguise the fact that the Government are in the most enormous muddle over their drugs policy. This is no theoretical muddle, it is one with practical and serious consequences for the health and behaviour of a significant proportion of our population, in particular our young people. That is why I have tabled this amendment.

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I shall come to the flaws in the Government's case in a moment, but first I begin with a word of thanks. Through the usual channels, the Government have arranged this debate so that noble Lords who wish to attend and participate can do so at a reasonable length and at a reasonable hour. Contrast this with the position in the other place. Whatever one's views on cannabis, we can all agree that it is a topic which arouses strong opinions. When this regulation came before the other place, the Government allocated it a total of one-and-a-half hours for debate. It is clear, on reading the debate in Hansard, that many potential contributions went unheard. The debate on the regulation was followed by a debate on the Mersey Tunnels Bill, which was not time limited. Which measure was the more important? Which commands greater public interest? The answer is obvious. The Government often express the concern that people consider that Parliament has little relevance. If the Government really think that one-and-a-half hours was sufficient time to debate cannabis, one can see why the general public might believe that Parliament is indeed out of touch.

I wish to make one final point about the debate held in the other place. Given the importance that the Government have accorded to their drugs strategy—and referred to again by the noble Baroness in her remarks—it would have been good if the Home Secretary could have attended that debate to hear the views expressed, instead of leaving it to his Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Caroline Flint, to try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

I turn to the remarks of the noble Baroness. In my view, to make sense of the Government's policy, you have to believe one or both of the following: first, that cannabis use is not specifically harmful; and, secondly, that reclassifying cannabis from class B to class C does not send any signal on its acceptability. I should like to examine both of those propositions.

First, I address the proposition that cannabis use is not specifically harmful. The link between cannabis use and later depression, anti-social behaviour, psychoses or schizophrenia has been significantly strengthened by various new studies. In her opening remarks, the noble Baroness referred to the British Medical Journal of 23rd November 2002. She passed over it quite lightly, but it contains reports of four heavy studies covering 50,000 army conscripts in Sweden, 1,600 students in the state of Victoria in Australia and 1,000 people in Dunedin, New Zealand. It is hardly a lightweight study. It covers many parts of the world.

One of the key conclusions of that research is that people who start smoking cannabis in adolescence are at the greatest risk of developing mental health problems. Researchers have concluded that eliminating cannabis use in the UK population could reduce cases of schizophrenia by as much as 13 per cent. Research on cannabis and its link to mental disorders is coming through at an ever-growing rate. In the view of Professor Edwards of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs—a body referred to by the noble Baroness—we

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are in a rapidly changing field of knowledge, and new knowledge is making cannabis look more dangerous, not less.

The effect of cannabis on the brain has been analysed by a distinguished expert on brain processes. Professor Susan Greenfield—properly known to your Lordships as the noble Baroness, Lady Greenfield—wrote in the Observer on 18th August 2002:

    "I challenge any advocate of cannabis to state what a 'safe dose' is. Until they do, surely it is irresponsible to send out positive signals, however muted?".

She went on to say:

    "We do know cannabis smoke contains the same constituents as that of tobacco: however, it is now thought that three or four cannabis cigarettes a day are equivalent to 20 or more tobacco cigarettes, regarding damage to the lining of the bronchus, while the concentration of carcinogens in cannabis smoke is actually higher than that in cigarettes".

It also, she said, modifies the configuration of the networks of brain cell connections. This will make you see the world in a different way, characteristically one depleted of any motivation.

Evidence such as this suggests that cannabis can cause, at the very least, impairment in attention span and cognitive performance, and we do not truly know the full potential that regular use of cannabis might have.

Similarly, we do not yet know the full extent to which cannabis potency has increased since scientific experiments on the drug first took place 30 years ago. The noble Baroness quoted from remarks made by Caroline Flint in another place on 29th October about the evidence of forensic scientists that cannabis is no stronger than it was 30 years ago. But some forms of cannabis, such as sensimilla and skunk, have only recently become cultivated in this country and it is too soon for the effects of such strong herbal forms to be fully understood.

Recently a journalist, Tony Thompson, wrote in the Observer, on 2nd November 2003, about a new form of high quality cannabis now being imported from South Africa called dagga. We cannot yet establish the potency of many of these types of cannabis which are new to our shores, or for that matter the consequences of excessive smoking. The Government have to admit that they cannot know the full physical and mental effects of repeated cannabis use, and especially of stronger, more potent strains. In the absence of certainty on those important points, one has to ask: why change the law?

As to the second proposition, that reclassifying cannabis will not send a signal to people, particularly young people, that the dangers of using it are not as great as once thought, changing the law so that cannabis is reclassified as a class C drug appears to be seen as necessary by the Government, according to the remarks made by the noble Baroness, to reflect a shift in public opinion and to separate the drug from the issues associated with harder drugs such as heroin and crack cocaine.

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But cannabis, which is now a class B drug, is already quite clearly separated from heroin and crack cocaine, both of which are in class A. I cannot see how making cannabis a class C drug will emphasise the perils of heroin. But making it a class C drug will serve to undermine the message as to its risks.

I usually labour in your Lordships' House in decent obscurity, but since my name appeared in connection with this amendment I have been besieged. I had no idea about the strength of public feeling; about the dangers of the signal being sent by the downgrading of cannabis to class C. Public opinion is concerned on two points: first, that downgrading will increase drug use and, secondly, that the increased use of cannabis will lead to the increased use of other, harder drugs—the gateway effect referred to by the noble Baroness.

An e-mail from Mrs Gillian Broadfoot is typical of the many that I have received. She wrote:

    "I am the mother of a teenager who is now 16, who used cannabis for two years without my knowledge, but who changed quite dramatically in his behaviour and attitudes as a result. He left school when he turned 16, having lost all motivation, and his school work having deteriorated steadily. His health suffered too, and when we discovered that he was using cannabis it was a shock, but even more so that a large number of his peers were too. I work amongst drug-addicted young people and I have yet to meet one who did not begin by using cannabis, believing it was not harmful. It has certainly proved, in my experience, to be a gateway drug".

Is Mrs Broadfoot right that liberalising cannabis laws will result in more people using it and possibly more people having problems with cannabis and other drugs? The former government drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell, certainly thinks so. Asked whether the change in the law would lead to more drug-taking, Hellawell answered:

    "The evidence from elsewhere is that it does. The people who have been deterred from taking cannabis because it is illegal will certainly now have the impression that it is all right to do it".

Asked if he thought there would be a connected increase in crime, he replied, "Yes".

Downgrading can only encourage cannabis use—it certainly cannot discourage its use. Users will be drawn to the dealers and tempted to try other, harder drugs. Drug use is a consequence of a lifestyle, in which cannabis, because it is more available, tends to be the first drug that people encounter. One has to accept that the choice then to take cocaine or ecstasy is a consequence of an individual's predisposition to seek and use drugs. But why make it any easier for someone with a predisposition to use drugs to start climbing that tragic ladder? How will this, in the words of the noble Baroness, break the cycle?

In the Committee stage of the Criminal Justice Bill, on 7th July this year, I referred to a pre-teen drugs misuse survey carried out in Glasgow. The noble Baroness very kindly agreed to look into the matter further. In a letter I received on 3rd November, she expanded upon the disturbing statistics. She wrote:

    "The research found that the anti-heroin messages of recent years seem to have been well absorbed by this age group. Nevertheless, it concluded that by the age of 12, a small proportion of pupils will already have started misusing drugs and whilst principally confined to cannabis, for some pupils this early age of onset involves other drugs. This is worrying, particularly where heroin and other class A drugs are involved".

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Phrases such as the "age of onset" used to describe pre-teen cannabis smoking suggest that the noble Baroness sees the habits of 10 to 12-year-olds as the initial stages of more serious drug-taking. What message does downgrading cannabis send to the 10 to 12 year-olds of Glasgow?

I suggest to the House that the two main arguments behind the Government's reclassification—cannabis is not truly harmful and reclassification sends no signal—do not stand up to critical examination. I am afraid the Government's case is not only illogical; it borders on the deceptive. While the Government are proposing, with a good deal of publicity, to downgrade cannabis from class B to class C through this regulation, they are at the same time proposing in the Criminal Justice Bill—currently before your Lordships' House, as the noble Baroness has said—to upgrade the penalties for all class C drugs, making possession an arrestable offence. No matter that in 2000 there were 70,000 cannabis-related arrests and only 331 for all the other 117 drugs currently in the class C category.

This was a classic attempt by the Government to spin. They are telling those who believe that cannabis law should be liberalised that they are reducing the category from class B to class C, while telling those who want to take a tough line on drugs that they are increasing the penalties for all class C drugs.

Peter Lilley, speaking in the debate in the other place, concluded:

    "The Government have got the worst of all possible worlds. They will simultaneously encourage more people to use the drug because people will know that there is no effective punishment for its use, but it will remain illegal and thus be available only through illegal gangs".—[Official Report, Commons, 29/10/03; col. 355.]

Following extensive debate in your Lordships' House, the Government have seen the illogicality of that position and have very kindly agreed to introduce amendments to affect the decoupling of cannabis and other class C drugs in the Criminal Justice Bill. How will they do that? We do not yet know because we have yet to see their proposals. That is the reason for the second half of my amendment.

Finally, a thought for the police, who are going to have to interpret and enforce this muddle. How can the Government expect the policy to be enforced fairly or evenly across different parts of the country and, no less importantly, across different racial communities? That patchwork quilt must surely be a recipe for increasing distrust and dislike of the police—the very reverse of what we should seek to achieve if we are to be truly successful in our fight against drugs.

I received an e-mail from Mrs Jan Berry, the chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales. She says:

    "Confusion surrounding the future legal status of cannabis has been caused by the decision to reclassify. Whilst I can understand the reasoning for the reclassification, the message being sent out appears wholly inappropriate, particularly as the jury is still out on the longer-term health implications. I believe concerns about the priority given to policing cannabis have been addressed already, without the need for legislative change. This time and energy currently being given to reclassifying cannabis could, we believe, be used far more effectively to rebalance the UK drugs

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    strategy, particularly in respect of education and treatment. The fact remains that cannabis does not need to be reclassified to be reprioritised".

To conclude, the Government's gyrations would be almost comic if they did not have such potentially serious and tragic consequences for our society. The Government should not seek to push the order through in face of the evidence against it and the adverse public reaction. They should first clarify their position as regards their proposals for cannabis and other class C drugs in the Criminal Justice Bill, allow time for proper consideration and, after taking into account all the factors and research that have emerged since the reclassification was first put forward, introduce revised proposals—if any are required. I hope that the Minister will seek to withdraw the regulation before us tonight. In the mean time, I beg to move.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion, at end to insert "but this House notes that the order may lead to increased use of cannabis with risks to the health of young people and regrets that the order is being made before the Government's proposals concerning class C drugs have been finalised".—(Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts.)

8.45 p.m.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, in rising to support this order—but to speak against the amendment—I do not do so without reservations about matters closely related to it. The order is a step in the right direction and, I am glad to say, it is based on sound evidence and expert opinion. It would have been outrageous if the Government, having set up the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, had not taken its advice, as well as that of the Home Affairs Select Committee in another place and the Runciman Committee, that cannabis should be reclassified to class C. All those organisations considered the evidence carefully from an expert point of view and reached their conclusions.

The purpose of the classification system is to make clear the differences in levels of harm and danger associated with various drugs. It is clear to the experts, who have looked at all the most up-to-date evidence, that cannabis, although not without dangers for some users, rightly belongs in class C. That is why I am concerned about the Government's attempt to create two kinds of class C drugs. I often wonder into which category that legal drug tobacco would be put if it had been discovered last year, since 120,000 people die every year from smoking tobacco, at great cost to the public purse and great distress to patients and their families. It is undoubtedly the tobacco that is often smoked with cannabis that causes some of the lung problems.

The Government have also responded to the clear benefits demonstrated in the Lambeth experiment, where the police have told us that hundreds of hours of police time were saved by the presumption against arrest for personal possession, equivalent to 1.8 full-time police officers. If that were replicated across the country, I understand from research by Rowntree that

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we could save 50 million, which represents 500 full-time officers. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us something about how that large chunk of police time will be redirected once this order is in place.

The Lambeth experiment has not been without its critics and rumours have abounded. However, Lambeth police tell us that there is no evidence of the rumoured influx of dealers or customers since the proportion of people cautioned for possession who came from outside the borough remained constant during the experiment. Besides, when the system is rolled out nationally there would be no question of drugs tourism. Nor was there any evidence of increased usage. A police survey of local schools did not reveal any reported increase in pupils being intoxicated. However, at the same time, the number of arrests for class A dealing offences increased by around 10 per cent and there was a 44 per cent increase in arrests for possession of cocaine. Clearly Lambeth police were making good use of their freed up time.

It is important to send out the message that if we reclassify cannabis we are not legalising it and there is no green light for smoking cannabis. But the great gain to be had is that we can get much tougher and more effective in tackling the terribly dangerous hard drugs and their dealers. That message must be coupled with even more effort at educating young people about the harm caused particularly by harder drugs and being honest about any dangers associated with cannabis. There is no evidence that the cannabis being sold in this country now is any stronger on average than it was 20 years ago—I accept the Minister's statement about that—but there are people such as schizophrenics for whom the dangers of using cannabis may be greater than for other members of the population. So it is important to be clear and honest and keep this particular matter under review.

The main thing is that the messages we give to young people are credible. That is why we on the Liberal Democrat Benches have long called for cannabis to be reclassified. All young people know that it is much less dangerous than class A or B drugs. The law is an ass if it does not reflect that. We know that its use is very widespread. When this matter was debated in another place, it was claimed that about half of 16 year-olds have tried it. It could be argued that there is already a green light with that generation. The young know that cannabis is not as harmful as class A or B drugs and they know that the majority of cannabis users never go on to use other drugs and most use it for only a short period of their lives. What we need to do for them, if they choose to use it, is to protect them from contact with dealers in hard drugs and organised criminals.

It is pretty clear to me that the gateway theory is not credible; on that I again agree with the Minister. The excellent research document by DrugScope entitled Cannabis and the Gateway Hypothesis said:

    "Gateway theory is often misunderstood. It is not about cannabis leading to harder drugs, it is about common profiles, environment, experience and access".

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The main danger is that the Government have not addressed the thorny issue of providing the many existing cannabis users—who are in every other way law abiding citizens—with a way of obtaining their supply without having to get it from dealers and criminals whose main aim is to get them onto harder, more addictive and more profitable drugs. Although people have taken the matter into their own hands, and already 50 per cent of cannabis used in this country is home grown, it is still done at risk of arrest. If the objective is to cut the so-called link between cannabis and hard drugs, which I believe is mainly where and by whom they are supplied, why will the Government not make it clear that growing your own for your own use does not risk arrest?

Evidence from the Netherlands suggests that decriminalising cannabis use does not lead either to increased usage nor to increased use of hard drugs. Whereas the average age of heroin users in this country is 21 and falling, the average age of heroin users in the Netherlands is 45 and rising. I am not advocating that the fudged arrangements in existence in the Netherlands should be adopted here—far from it—but we have not tackled the problem if we do not tackle the supply. It is said that, although most cannabis users do not go onto hard drugs, most hard drug users started with cannabis. I believe the major reason for this is that they have to get cannabis from criminal dealers, and those dealers make it their business to try to gain a customer for life—however short and miserable that life might be—by getting the user onto hard, addictive drugs. That is the only link with crime. There is no evidence that people steal to support a cannabis habit as it is fairly cheap.

I now turn to the guidelines on arrest published by the Association of Chief Police Officers two months ago. First, I should like to ask the Government on whose advice have they added a presumption in favour of arrest for possession of cannabis now that it is to be a class C drug? There was no such recommendation in the report of the Select Committee in another place, the Runciman report or in the report of the advisory council, nor were changes to the arrangements for arrest and sentencing mentioned in the Government's drugs strategy. Yet, while reclassifying cannabis to class C, the Government have now introduced a presumption for arrest for class C drugs for the first time. To solve the problem that raises for other class C drugs, they now propose to introduce another separate category. Is cannabis now a class B2 drug, or do we now have in effect a new class D, and if so, on what evidence basis? That is the muddle that I identify.

Having said that, I am most concerned about the discriminatory nature of the guidelines. It seems that you can now smoke cannabis without getting arrested unless you happen to be under 18 or have a mental disability. According to the guidelines, in addition to smoking cannabis in public view, causing disorder, smoking it near youth clubs and schools or being a regular offender—that is perfectly reasonable—we now have a presumption that anyone under 18 or a

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"vulnerable person" will be arrested and taken to the police station for a warning or other such measure. A "vulnerable person" is described as,

    "a person who may be mentally disordered or mentally handicapped or incapable of understanding the significance of questions or replies".

Despite the fact that the next sentence of the guidelines says that,

    "such people should be dealt with within the terms of this strategy by being arrested, their own personal welfare and interests being paramount",

I am most concerned about this. How can it possibly be in the interests of the welfare of such a person as those described to be hauled off to a police station and questioned? How terrifying is that for someone with a mental handicap? Surely this is a role for joined-up services and multi-agency working? Why not have a police officer contact the person's GP or social services instead of this draconian response, dragging the person into the criminal justice system for doing something for which a similar non-handicapped person would no longer be penalised? In the case of a young person, surely there is a more appropriate response.

My other concern is about consistency. Here I echo many of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts. These guidelines give high levels of discretion to the police and there are indications that already the police in Scotland are saying that they will arrest in the vast majority of cases. How are the Government intending to monitor the consistency of the operation of the guidelines? I hope that the Minister can enlighten us. Already we have enormous discrepancies in police practice. The proportion of cannabis offences resulting only in a caution varies across police forces in England and Wales from 87 per cent at the highest to 29 per cent at the lowest. This is a matter that has long caused great concern to people with MS who used cannabis products for therapeutic reasons. While I was delighted to see recently that NICE has now confirmed these benefits and we are close to getting a licensed pharmaceutical product, the Government really need to do something about the inconsistency across police forces.

Finally, I am most concerned about the list of misuse of drugs offences for which the penalty is being increased in the Criminal Justice Bill. For example, it seems that you can now be liable for a 14-year custodial sentence for allowing someone to smoke a joint in your house, despite the fact that that person would not be arrested for it. Does that really make sense from a Government who claim to be responding to the reality of the drugs situation in this country?

The rise in cannabis usage over the past 30 years referred to by the Minister is a clear indication that the way in which the law and the justice system have been dealing with it up to now has not worked. That is why I welcome this move forward. Yet instead of courageously taking good advice and properly decriminalising personal use of cannabis, the Government are hedging the order around with other things that return us in effect

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to the status quo. Actually, the situation is worse than the status quo if we count the discriminatory and potentially damaging nature of the ACPO guidelines.

I have mentioned my reservations. I can hardly oppose the order and I do not, but I am deeply concerned about the way in which its potential benefits may be neutralised by this timid Government.

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